So I know you grew up a military kid moving around a lot, but over the course of my research, I found your TWS Check-Out from ’87 and I don’t think I ever realized that you were already 22 by that early stage in your career. That’s an amazingly late start for an am, especially in the 80s.
Yeah, not that many people knew how old I was. I looked the same age as everybody else back then but I was a little older than a lot of pros. I’m actually closer in age to guys like Jay Adams and Shogo Kubo.
But yeah, because my Dad was in the military, I lived all the over the place. I basically grew up skating but when my family moved to New Jersey in the late 70’s, I feel like that was when my skating really started to progress. The problem was that my dad got transferred to Japan at the peak of my most progressive years. So just as I started to hook up with the rippers in the scene, we had to move away. And Japan was rough, man. I never saw another skateboarder, let alone a vert ramp, for the entire 3 ½ years we lived there! So that’s what happened, I kinda stalled out in isolation over in northern Japan for a while.
Luckily, we moved to Hawaii after that and I was able to make up for lost time. But yeah, I’ve been an old-timer forever.
But were you even pursuing a career back then? When did sponsorship become a possibility for you?
Growing up outside of California, we never even fantasized about getting sponsored back then because we didn’t know how that stuff worked. We didn’t even know what “sponsored” meant. We just had our own little scene that we were stoked on. Everything was much smaller and less unified back then… basically a bunch of little scenes operating on their own.
I initially got hooked up with Alva Skates in the mid-80s after meeting and becoming close friends with these two skate girls from Cali. I used to work at a pizza joint in Waikiki when they came stumbling in one night after raging at the clubs. They both had on high heels but one was wearing a thrashed-ass Indy shirt and the other had on an equally-tattered Alva “Scratch” shirt.
Back when that meant something.
(laughs) Yeah, I come to find out that they’re friends with the legendary Jaks team and Tony Alva. They both skated and were totally legit! One was even dating Mondo, the artist for Alva Skates at the time. I was blown away!
We actually became roommates shortly after that. A few months later, Mondo came out to visit and I took him around to all the local spots. I was just doing my thing when he mentioned something about how I should be in Cali, skating the contests.
After Mondo left, he sent me an Alva box with an offer to stay at their spot in Venice Beach, if I ever wanted to come out and skate. I was stoked but honestly, I didn’t think too much about it. The term “flow” didn’t exist back then but that’s basically what it was. It wasn’t my “big break” or anything, but it did plant the seed for things to come.
It really didn’t click until I picked up the new issue of Thrasher one day. I opened it up to see a contest photo of my good homie Murf in there! We grew up skating together in Jersey but had lost touch, so it was rad to see him in the mag. And, of course, seeing his photo made me want to get out there, too! So that’s what really what set it off.
Soon afterwards, I was moving to the Alva House in Venice.
What was the Alva House like?
Well, when I called up Mondo to get the address, he mentioned in passing that if he wasn’t there when I arrived, to just break in.
“Yeah, just break in. It’s cool.”
The Alva House was the garage of an orphanage that had been re-renovated into a livable space. So we actually lived and played together with a lot of the young kids who were staying in that orphanage. I still remember this baby who was found in a dumpster somewhere in LA, it made headlines across the country… that baby was taken in by our landlord.
Right? It was originally T.A. and Mondo’s place, right after skateboarding had died. But TA had already moved out when I got there. It was me, Mondo, Chris Cook and Mark Munski at the time.
The living conditions were gnar. Uninhabitable to most, but as a skater, it was perfect. Do you remember that show Hogan’s Heroes? It looked exactly like that. We had these bunk beds made out of 2x4s, on some crazy P.O.W. shit. I slept under Cooksie when I first got there, nearest the door, which was the worst spot. That was the hierarchy: the new guy slept on the ground closest to the door, nearest to all the mayhem that would be happening in the main living areas.
But it was radical seeing the “who’s who” of Dogtown and skateboarding come rolling through on a regular basis. Lots of artists and musicians, too. Dudes like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers would roll by to skate with us all the time before they blew up.
Was there even a bathroom?
Yeah, it had a bathroom and shower. And I’m not gonna name any names but some gnarly shit could go down in that bathroom, man. You had to be careful whenever the house ran out of toilet paper. Your t-shirt would disappear, only to be found a few weeks later in the trash with somebody’s ass wipes on it. (laughs)
Nothing was private, just a bunch of guys in bunk beds. Even taking girls back there, that’s just how it was. You had to learn to block shit out. Full-on shankin’ sessions with everyone else just… there. (laughs)
What was the vibe like as a member of the Alva Posse?
Well, I got on back when it was still the “Alva Skates” era. It was slowly becoming the Posse era but still had a little ways to go. We had already grown out of the garage operation by that point to a warehouse in an industrial complex, but it didn’t become the Posse until a few years later. It was a blessing to see how that all went down.
Alva was just on a different trip. While all the other brands were out trying to find that next up-and-coming guy, we were sponsoring influential dudes in the hood and skate scenes around the country. We were kinda like Dogtown in that way. We skated but we were also into the art and music scenes. That’s who Alva was, so the company attracted that kind of skater, myself included. We were always skating, we just weren’t so interested in trophies, you know? It was more of a lifestyle for us.
So when did you recognize the team was becoming this different entity? Was the Posse era a pronounced thing or more of a natural evolution?
It just happened naturally, man.
Skateboarding had been dead for so long but it was finally starting to get sparked again, eventually becoming that great 80s era we all remember. Basically, the Posse happened because the industry blew up, taking Alva Skates along with it.
Prior to this, companies would only have 1 or 2 pros and handful of ams. But as skateboarding got popular again, brands were starting to make loot. And when a company is doing well, they need more product more to sell. So, because of that, more riders were turned pro. Companies needed more pro models!
So much of that Posse era came about through guys traveling around and promoting the brand. Dave Duncan and Dennis Martinez, those were the guys who I feel connected all the dots around the country as the company grew.
I remember being so hyped with the Texans came to Alva Skates from Zorlac. Tex Gibson and Craig Johnson… Murf, too, even though he’s from Jersey. But he also rode for Zorlac, which basically made him an honorary Texan as well. (laughs)
So yeah, I feel like once JT came out to the Oceanside contest from Florida as an Alva pro… Eddie Reatugui leading the charge and after that, with Danforth and Freddie Smith in the mix, too, that was the beginning of the Alva Posse era.
Is it true that the team van was a lowrider at one point?
(laughs) Yeah, that’s true.
This was right after I had moved out to Venice. Cooksie and I wanted to go to this contest in Arizona, we just didn’t have any way of getting there. But Mondo wasn’t tripping, he was working on it.
The day before the contest, he pulls up to the house in this crazy lowrider. Full-on Dukes of Hazard horn, “Comanchero” painted on the side, everything… We couldn’t believe it.
“We’re going to Arizona!”
I have no idea where he got this thing but that’s how it was back then. Everything was on the fly, but we were hyped. There was no such thing as a company card so we just packed a few boxes of product to sell and hit the road.
Still, we never did anything the way other companies would. For example, here we are driving on the freeway in this lowrider, but it’s not like we’re heading straight to the contest. Nah, Mondo has to stop by his chick’s house in Hollywood real quick.
“I’ll be right back.”
Well, he goes up there, bones his chick… and falls asleep! We’re all waiting in the car, ready to hit the road, and this dude’s upstairs asleep. No cell phone, a gated apartment, there’s nothing we could do. So we end up waiting on the guy for the next 4 hours outside!
Describe the mid-80s Venice scene. I don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves as one of skateboarding’s first street scenes. What was an average day like down there? Were those quarterpipes a daily thing? And where did those come from anyway?
What’s funny about all that is I come from a vert background. Mondo was having me out to skate in vert contests, which is what I did at first… The Palmdale Desert Ramp Battle II and all that. The problem was Venice didn’t have any vert ramps! There wasn’t a vert ramp for miles! So what are you going to do? It was back to the streets!
But that was a groundbreaking time for street skating. This is when it was actually becoming a genre onto itself instead of just a pastime between vert sessions. Venice represented the line where street skating started breaking away from its previous influences into all new territory. It’s just that the scene never really got documented, other than what you saw in skate ads.
The first trick that comes to mind as representing all that was soon to come was the push-up wallride. There was a little picture of Jesse doing one in the Trash section of Thrasher, which was the closest thing we had to the Internet back then. But when Jesse’s photo hit, nobody had ever seen anything like it. And as that photo spread all over the world, Jesse and Natas were already pioneering no-handed wallrides. People don’t realize the impact those had back then. Wallrides really blew everyone’s minds.
Not many people know this but it was Julien Stranger and his homies that built those first quarterpipes down at the beach. This is all back when Venice was still “the Ghetto by the Sea”. We’d skate those ramps all day and just as the sun was about to go down, we’d have to go buy a 6-pack or bottle of wine for the winos to keep an eye on the ramp for us. You couldn’t just leave a ramp out there overnight and expect it to still be there in the morning. The homeless would use that shit for firewood! You had to break off the winos with booze so they wouldn’t touch it. I mean, those dudes were barbecuing pigeons down there, man. Shit was gnarly.
Those ramps would typically last around a week or so. But it’s not like there were always ramps down there. Julien and his homies built the first few, maybe another one would show up 6 months later. Locals would steal stuff from inland and drag it down to the beach from time to time, but that was about it. We’d mostly just skate the architecture of the old Venice Pavilion and the Boardwalk.
One of your best friends at the time, how important is Jesse Martinez to modern skateboarding?
Jesse is so important, man. Just his mentality, his approach was like no other. Like, grabbing the nose of your board and running with it before hopping on to get that extra speed? We all do that now and take it for granted, but Jesse was the first person I ever saw do that. Nobody did that back then. I still remember seeing him do that for the first time, I laughed my ass off because it looked so crazy. But now everybody does it. Go thank Jesse for that when you see him.
Jesse was just so aggro, man. Fully livicated to skateboarding and skateboarders. He never backed down from anyone or any situation, including the Popo. I’ve seen him knock out so many kooks, but even then, his motto was always: “I don’t fight skateboarders.”
Jesse brought speed, aggression and innovation to street skating at a time when “street” just meant going out and dropping off things. He took it seriously. Natas did, too. It was incredible to see those two breaking new ground in the streets. They were relentless. Once they thought of a trick, they just kept at it until they got it. They’d be at it for weeks, sometimes even months before they made it. But that’s what we have to give thanks for. Someone had to show the world it was possible.
What’s a trick you remember those guys battling?
It was like a cycle. Like I said, it started off with those backside push-up layback wallrides. So while the rest of the world was figuring them out backside, Natas and Jesse were already doing them frontside. And by the time we got those, they had learned no-handed backside wallrides. And they did it again with no-handed frontside wallrides. They were always ahead like that.
What about Tim Jackson? Was he just an anomaly or were there others that skated like him, too?
Oh man, nobody skated like Tim Jackson back then or since!
If I had to compare Timmy to anybody else for others to get an idea of what he was like, I’d have to say that he was like the Eazy E of skateboarding. A straight-up loc. I don’t want to use to the term “gangster”, and everyone throws around the term “O.G,” but fuck, that was Timmy.
People trip out on how he skated, but a lot of that had to do with spending so much time in County. He got yoked from training in his cell. It was his physique that actually allowed him to do a lot of those sick wall tricks. I mean, we all wanted to do that shit, too, we just didn’t have the core strength to do it like him.
His brother, Kelly, is the one who helped put together the 80’s Dogtown team with Jim Muir. But Tim was just a G. Toothless, homeless, out living in the streets, rocking 36 waist pants while everybody else still rocked straight-legs that fit…
You have to remember that Venice was full-on V-13 and Shoreline-Crip territory at that point. That’s why everyone rocked the blue rag. Venice was blue. You couldn’t even wear red shoes or socks at the beach. Someone would make you take them off, if you didn’t get beat up or shot first. And you know how colorful skateboarding is, especially back in the 80s.
Would Venice skaters have a lot of run-ins with gang shit back then?
It’s Dogtown, so surfers and skaters had some respect, but it was still gnarly. You still had to speed past all the gang houses and crack houses. That was everyday life. Guys with AKs around my building. Waking up in the morning to find machetes under my car from gangsters hiding them there the night before. All that shit. It was hardcore.
It’s funny, because in skateboarding, everyone called their crew a “skate gang”, but when I moved to Venice, I saw real skate gangsters. I remember seeing some skaters roll up with their pieces during the jump ramp days. I’d see them wrap their gun up in a shirt and put it off in the grass before they’d skate.
Lots of drive-by shootings back then, too. Gangs from other neighborhoods rolling up to the beach and straight-up opening fire. I’ve been inside skateshops as they got shot up. Seeing people shot point blank, seeing people stabbed… it was wasn’t pretty.
How seriously did you take “streetstyle” at the time? Even with all this progression, did it feel “real” to you or more novelty?
It was all skating so it didn’t really seem like some big shift in energy to me. We took it all seriously, regardless of whatever trends the industry was trying to hype up.
The top of the food chain was still vert. I still wanted to find out where all the ramps were… and if there was a backyard pool around, give me that, too. We lived for those things, there just weren’t that many on the Westside of LA. So if the streets were all that we had to skate, then that’s what we skated.
Everything that was big in skating at the time just seemed so far away. If we could get a ride somewhere, we were definitely gonna take you up on it. We bumrushed ramps and pools whenever we could, showing up at spots like a big gang. I’m sure we looked crazy but we were only trying to bring energy and stoke.
Was the Posse purposefully marketed as “tough guys” or was that just the nature of the beast?
That’s just how we rolled, man. As ridiculous as it might’ve looked to some, that’s who we were back then.
We just wanted to skate. More than anything else, we were skateboarders who needed sponsors in order to travel. Sponsorship enabled our skate habit. It was a means to our end, just to skate. That was bigger than being pro for us.
You have to remember that guys like “The Nomad” earned their nicknames. The Alva Boys were all well-traveled, even before getting on the team. Driving cross-country to contests and events… or maybe even just a ramp we wanted to skate. A faraway spot we wanted to hit. Linking up with other skate crews along the way. Over and over again.
Pretty much every Alva rider had experienced the death of skateboarding, so when it got good again, we were all appreciative. There was no focusing boards, none of that shit. Skate models were our lifeblood. Not just for selling on the road, we used product to show gratitude for an empty pool or a roof over our heads. More than anything, our boards were a passport. It gave us the opportunity to travel the world, connecting with other scenes and skaters, building lifelong friendships.
|Chicago Team Portrait Outtake|
It’s come up a few times already, how did that Chicago team photo go down?
It’s crazy to think about but that was actually one of the only times the entire Alva Posse was ever together in one place! We were all just so spread out.
But yeah, we’d all been kicking it in Chi-Town for a week or so… skating the Turf Skatepark, which had just reopened nearby in Milwaukee. The team was staying at Stevie Dread’s house while I actually stayed at Jesse Neuhaus’ spot with him and his family.
The only reason that photo even happened is because Stevie’s homie was a professional photographer and wanted to take our picture inside his studio. But that’s just what we were wearing. It was never planned to be used for a skate ad.
I think just because we were such a big group of dudes, we ended up having to climb outside the window of the guy’s studio and onto that rooftop. The photographer liked how it looked so he just shot us out there. I remember it being super cold out. But yeah, that was it.
Well, we’re all waiting on the platform to catch the train back to Stevie Dread’s house after the shoot when this guy starts having a gnarly epileptic seizure right there in front of us! Just convulsing violently! It was intense! But while all of these people on the platform are horrified, nobody really seemed to be doing anything to help the guy.
Picture the Alva Posse, dressed exactly how we are in that team ad, coming to this guy’s aid. Somehow Freddie Smith knew exactly what to do in case of an epileptic seizure. So we all just start grabbing the guy to hold him down. It must have looked like quite the spectacle… or a gang mugging! (laughs)
Freddie yells out, “Does anyone have a comb!?!”
The guy was starting to swallow his tongue and Freddie needed to keep him from doing so. But we’re the Alva Posse… we don’t carry combs! Most of us rocked dreads! (laughs)
Everyone on the platform is just tripping. It must’ve looked like we were trying to kill the guy, but we’re actually trying to save him! Finally, someone from the crowd hands Freddie a comb and he fishes this guy’s tongue out of his throat, saving his life. The dude starts to come out of it… I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to go through all that and wake up to being pinned down by the Alva team.
T.A. almost got arrested when he ran to get help, too. The cops thought he was some kinda criminal and didn’t believe what all he was yelling about until he brought them back to the scene. I think they even had him in handcuffs. He was pissed.
“See! I told you! We’re fucking trying to save someone’s life!”
But yeah, dude had regained consciousness and was able to breathe again, so we just hopped on the next train. Without one thanks from anyone. We never even got the guy’s name.
So insane, man!
I have to say, though, that in the years since, a lot of the outtakes have resurfaced on social media. I actually like the outtakes better, like the ones with Jesse Neuhaus in there. Not only is he a Chicago boy, he was also our new am at the time. I always felt like he should’ve been in there.
How’d your Transworld cover go down?
I had no idea I was even getting that cover! I saw that shit the same time everybody else did. I still remember walking through an airport and seeing it for the first time. I’d just gotten off a flight and was walking by a bookstore when I happened to glance over at the magazine rack.
Why did Alva give you that Street Fire board first instead of a pro model?
The Street Fire was originally supposed to be Jesse’s first model. This was back when he’d ride on a company for, like, a week. One of those companies that he rode for real quick after Santa Monica Airlines was Alva. Jesse was on fire at the time, so the plan was to turn him pro immediately and give him a board… which is probably why he left Santa Monica Airlines to begin with.
Jesse and I drew the Street Fire shape together at the Alva Warehouse. I think it was the first board to ever have money bumps, too. I still remember the thought process as we were designing that thing. This was pre-double kick, when everyone was still riding full-template single kicks. Flat nose shapes. So we made a snubbier nose with less overhang around the tip so it wouldn’t explode during wallrides.
The money bump actually came from Jesse:
Jump ramps were just starting to happen and we were all snapping boards like crazy. So this was actually functional, not just a gimmick to sell boards. The bumps were also there for grabbing when you did street plants, which were popping off as well at the time. Jesse used to kill all that stuff back then.
But we spent all this time designing an awesome shape… and Jesse quits to ride for Powell a week later! Tony’s partner, Falahee, decides to release the board anyway. Again, more product to sell. I was far from turning pro at this point but since I helped shape it and was Jesse’s friend, I just kinda took it over. I was now an am with my own board, sort of.
What kinda made it even possible was that street contests were starting to get popular and I was placing top three during those days as an amateur on Alva. So while well-deserving guys like Cooksie were turning pro, TA and Falahee kept me am, since I was placing at contests and getting coverage in the mags that way.
It was probably a good thing as I’d kinda popped onto the scene from out of nowhere. I was often “the dark horse” at a lot of those contests.
But soon after that, Freddie Smith got on the team and he ended up with a board as an amateur, too. His shit sold like crazy. Freddie had the best-selling board at Alva for a while, which is funny because he never had the slightest interest in turning pro. But we were both making loot off those boards, especially Fred. I remember we actually started calling ourselves “the scamateurs”. (laughs)
Why are you in your underwear for the ad?
Because I always wore army fatigues back then but when I showed up for the photo shoot at Wynn Miller’s studio that day, T.A. takes one look at me and says, “Take them shits off, man. This ain’t the Bones Brigade.” (laughs)
With how loose Alva was run, do you feel your career got the support it needed? I feel there were several riders who might’ve had bigger careers back then, had they been on a different board sponsor.
I can’t speak for everyone but I think that being the kind of skaters we were, all we really cared about was having our own shape under our feet. That was worth more to us than currency.
But at the same time, there were different types of deals starting to be made. I could sense that things were starting to get weird with the business end of it, which is part of the reason why I left. Business ruins everything.
What do you mean?
Things started to not line up. Money wasn’t a concern for the longest time, but I was working as the shipping manager, too, so I saw the kind of numbers the company was doing. Things were booming, but we all still had to work jobs in order to survive. I’ve never been overly concerned with money but there are basic things you need.
The entire time I was on Alva, I had a job. I needed a job to support myself so I could continue skating. I remember at one of my jobs, Eric D and I used to work in the food court next to each other at Fred Segal’s in Santa Monica. And we were both pros!
Besides the team photo, the only other time the Alva Posse ever got together in one place was at the first “Disco in Frisco” street contest. With everyone around, I voiced my opinion to the boys, like, “Hey man, the company has grown so much but we’re still all scratching to survive. What’s up with that?”
I put it out there that if we all banded together, we could meet with the owner and review how we’re getting paid. It was something that could’ve benefited all of us.
Everyone seemed to be into it at the time, but after that little meeting, nothing happened. I think that’s when Falahee started making separate deals with individual riders, not with the team as a whole.
I was starting to lose my stoke. Not only that, I also wanted the company to move away from the Tri-Tail concave they were using on all our models. Yeah, you could ollie hella high on flatground and it was selling well, but it was no longer meeting our needs.
So I decided to leave. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I cried when I told T.A and his wife that I was leaving… And it took several meetings for me to really walk away.
How did Rocco enter the picture?
I was actually going to ride for Z! I met with George Wilson and Chris, the owner of Z-Flex, right after I left Alva Skates. I was pretty much “on” with a board deal, until Jesse stopped by my house a few days later.
“Hey Hartsel, Rocco just started a company. You’re going to ride with me for Rocco.”
Back then, the industry standard was that riders got paid a dollar-per-board. That’s what everyone got. But a sign of things to come was Rocco offering Jesse and I two dollars-per-board! It was on!
But Rocco was a gamble at this point. He’d been pretty much 86’d from the industry. He’d just lost his job as Venture TM and was kind of on the outs. I actually remember when I first decided to ride for Rocco, I suddenly started getting calls from distributors around the world telling me not to do it!
I’m only mentioning this because I believe I would’ve faded out as a pro years earlier had I not gotten with Rocco. It was because of him that I was able to extend my career, for sure.
Talk a little more about those early Rocco Division days… the loan sharks, the flimsy boards and all that.
Oh, I remember all of those magical moments.
Skateboarding was just changing so quickly. This was at the peak of the “vert is dead” era, which was the worst mentality, but that was the reality of the situation. So many pros were fading out and disappearing.
It wasn’t just the industry though, the actual equipment itself was changing. That’s another reason why skating for Rocco was rad, he actually cared and made good product. He was already ahead of the game with small wheels and double-kick boards.
You have to think that back then, all of the major skate brands had a square finish rail that was fully-dipped. You didn’t see the ply until after the paint on the rails got worn down. But maybe because Prime was originally a furniture maker, Rocco’s boards had rounded rails and were wood-stained, rather than being painted. So our boards always seemed a little lighter, snappier. Now it’s the standard.
I remember another morning where Jesse showed up at my house super early, this time with one of the first double-kick boards. I was actually kinda laughing at it. Vision had tried to put one out prior and it seemed like just the worst gimmick. Like, why would you want two kicktails? I don’t know… maybe it was the shape they used. (laughs)
But instead of talking shit, I asked Jesse how he liked it.
“Fuck, it’s killer!”
Oh… okay. So I put my shoes on and we jump on our boards toward the boardwalk. There was a ledge that was maybe thigh-high. I have all of this nose now, the first thing I do is ollie up to a nose stall. It was a skateboard experience like I’d never had, because you could’ve never done that before. The noses were too small and flat. This was obviously going to open up so many new possibilities. I backed Rocco 100% after that.
How receptive were Rocco and Rodney to your inclusion of Rastafari in pretty much everything you were doing back then?
Rodney was always polite. He never wanted to be negative about any of it. But Rocco… if there was ever a situation where you had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other to make a decision, this was it. (laughs)
Rocco pretty much wanted everything to be how he wanted to do it. Every time I’d flash a Rasta graphic, it would immediately be met by Rocco saying, “Awwwww, man! Come on!”
That was always his answer. The H.I.M. image that I asked Spike to put in the beginning of my Rubbish Heap part?
“Awwww, man! You’re selling out!”
But with that said, Rocco always showed me respect by allowing me to do that stuff. I loved that about him.
I always loved your graphics but I’ll be honest that I never really knew what they meant. Can you breakdown a few real quick? Like the globes, the tree and the 3-pointed star?
I often refer to this time as the Prayer Rug years, as I was fully devoted to Rastafari back then. I belonged to an organization called the 12 Tribes of Israel, which I livicated a few of my graphics to. H.R. of the Bad Brains actually first introduced me to them. It began out of Jamaica in the late 60’s and, at that point, had grown to 18 houses worldwide, one of which was in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a church and it wasn’t a religion, the 12 Tribes simply called itself “an organization”.
Ultimately, you read one Bible chapter per day, in order, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22. It’s a daily discipline towards renewing and sighting the spirit that takes a little over 3 years to complete. And it has nothing to do with your race, ethnicity, hair or diet.
At the time, JT and I were both active members and part of the “art body”, creating art for events within the Rasta community. Everything we did back then, we called “our works” and skateboarding became an extension of this. So these graphics not only represented me in professional skateboarding but also my Rastafarian works.
Obviously, there’s lot of Rastafarian symbolism in my graphics that was important to me, like the Seal of Solomon and the Six-Pointed Star, the Trinity, and Red, Gold and Green Banners. I also wanted to have some Asian influence in there, too… like the yin-and-yang symbols and the use of “kanji” characters.
The Globes board, if you look closely, there’s a star on Los Angeles, where I was living at that time, and there is a Red, Gold, and Green Banner over Ethiopia, which was our main aim. Repatriating to Africa.
The Tree model was called “The Wisdom Tree”. It was inspired by a Psalm out of the Bible about a tree that prospers, bearing fruit in all seasons. And those characters are from the Ethiopian alphabet, reading “Wisdom”.
The 3-pointed star you’re referring to is actually an alpha/omega symbol, with a dove on the nose, symbolizing peace, the spirit and resurrection. That was my first SMA model, “Livicated to the 12 Tribes”. The alpha/omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, symbolizes eternity. No beginning and no end. I lifted that symbol from Rick Griffin, one of my all-time favorite artists.
Incredible. And is that the first pole jam in your SMA announcement ad?
Well, I used to see Chris Cook try those all the time, but on way crazier poles. Cooksie was such an unorthodox freak, always going out of his way to not do what everyone else was doing, almost out of spite. I used to see him trying to slappy up and down handrails back in the 80s! You know the vertical poles on the top stair, before it bends down the staircase? He’d try to jam up that and then down the rail, basically on a suicide mission. I never saw him come all that close to making it, but I always have to give partial credit to him for planting the idea inside my head.
The funny thing is that I don’t even recall that photo being taken. Chuck Katz just happened to take that photo while I was out one day. It’s not like Rocco set up an ad shoot for it or anything. It was definitely a surprise to see in the mags for the first time. (laughs)
I don’t think anyone can really claim to having done the first of anything in skateboarding, but I’m pretty sure that was the first published photo of that trick. Even though, a lot of people just thought I was ollieing over it. (laughs)
How was filming for Rubbish Heap? What that just a couple of days?
More like going out to lunch with Spike! (laughs)
I think the video must’ve been 80% finished when they told Jesse and I that we needed to film for it. But if you look at my part and Jesse’s part, we’re wearing the same clothes throughout the whole thing. Everybody else’s gear changes multiple times, meaning they probably had weeks or months to film. I filmed my part in an afternoon, Jesse probably filmed his in an hour.
My part was basically filmed during a lunch date. That’s why at the end, there’s that little kid at the restaurant with the salt shaker. That’s where we ate after we filmed that day. We probably spent more time at that restaurant than we did filming the part. (laughs)
The day started with Spike picking me up in Rocco’s van, the same one I got that ollie to “anti-footplant” off the bumper of for my part. The backside slash was on a bank next door to my house. After that, we went down a few blocks and skated the round Santa Monica curbs. Then we filmed around Windward Ave, the same area where the pole-jam ad was taken. We also hit the bleachers where they filmed “White Men Can’t Jump” for a clip.
From there, Spike wanted to hit those brick quarterpipes downtown. On the way there, I remembered a pool nearby so we checked that out, too. The deep end had some water in it but we still filmed a little run in there. And that was pretty much it. That’s my part.
And that’s you singing?
I don’t know if that’s “singing” but yeah, Spike asked me what kinda song I wanted, and since a lot of my friends were musicians in the 12 Tribes, we just made a track for it ourselves. A couple friends of mine had a sampler and made beats, so we sampled Shabba Ranks’ “No Bother Dis”. Don’t bother disrespecting. Which is probably why I chose to say “INI Style” right afterwards: Don’t diss INI style… which opened me right up to getting dissed. (laughs)
Whatever happened to Duc and John?
I heard long ago that Duc unfortunately got sucked into gang culture while John moved onto college and actually started modeling. They were both so damn good, though.
Duc and John were basically in counterpoint to the rest of the LA Boys during that time. They all skated around the same zone as Paulo, Rudy, Gabriel and them, they just didn’t get out there the way those other guys did.
Jesse, Eric D. and I always tried our best to support and encourage young upcoming skaters that came to skate in the hood, flowing them gear and boards whenever we could. It was rad watching some of them go on to become notable skaters. Like, Jesse and I were the ones who got Kareem Campbell, Daniel Castillo and Uhuru (R.I.P.) in the mix back in the day, along with Duc and John. All those cats. I even helped get Ray Barbee on Alva back in the day. How crazy is that?
I used to beg Rocco and Rodney to put those guys on the team. I still remember the afternoon that I took Kareem, Daniel and Uhuru to World Headquarters after talking Rodney and Rocco into watching them skate. They were so young and hella nervous. Rocco and Rodney came out to the loading docks to check them out… And one-by-one, they crumbled on every one of their tricks. (laughs)
Rocco and Rodney didn’t even say a word, they just shook their heads and walked back inside. I really felt for these kids. So in my last World Industries ad, I made sure to put photos of Kareem, Daniel and Uhuru in there. Rocco and Rodney didn’t understand but that’s what I wanted. They were the youts, we are the roots.
So that ad was meant to be your swan song?
Yeah, that was my bowing out. I wanted JT in there, too. We put his billboard photo in there with that quote, “I ain’t no damn helicopter!”
I didn’t realize Kareem, Daniel, and Uhuru weren’t on the team yet.
Because they all crumbled at their little try-out! But I wanted to give them some shine anyway. I continued flowing them gear and driving them to contests. Next thing I know, Rocco and Rodney are all about these guys! No way! Those are our kids! (laughs)
Incredible. And you just went to Rocco and Rodney on your own to retire?
Yeah, I could see the writing on the wall. I never wanted to milk it. I didn’t want to wait for Rocco and Rodney to have to tell me. I understood. It’s not like I was quitting skating or anything, I was just trying to look at the bigger picture at that point in my life.
People always talk about how crazy Rocco was, but was he any gnarlier than Falahee was back at Alva?
(laughs) To put them in the same light, they’re both capitalists. They’re both businessmen. And everything I’ve learned about business, I picked up from working with those two. But I’d say Falahee’s motivation back then was purely money. That was his focus. And he’d say the craziest stuff, too. Just ruthless… but he was able to be that way because he had T.A. as a front man. He stayed behind-the-scenes and handle the business end.
I loved Rocco because I always felt that his main focus was the kids, in his own way. That’s how he won me over. He listened to what they had to say and that’s why he blew up. Sure, he was a businessman but he also just wanted to stoke kids out, too.
So a few years later now, what was Shaolin Skateboards all about? Wasn’t that through Rocco? What eventually happened with that project?
Well, it was originally a clothing company but we did eventually merge with Rocco once we started making boards.
I started Shaolin with Slick, the original partner of Fuct with Eric Brunetti. He’s an amazing artist originally out of Hawaii who I became friends with in LA. I always wanted to do something with him over the years, so around 1996, after I’d moved back to Hawaii, we got together to do Shaolin.
I was trying to think of the dopest shit out there at the time. And as an Asian dude, I wanted it to have an Asiatic connection. In my mind, I’d always connected skateboarding with martial arts, so the name “Shaolin” made perfect sense.
I never intended to make boards but Shaolin Worldwide had gnarly growth from the very beginning. With Slick doing most of the art while I handled production, marketing and design work, we blew up all by ourselves. It’s funny because we didn’t even have a warehouse at the time, so there were nights where I’d have to sleep in the parking lot with all of the boxes until the freight forwarders showed up. (laughs)
At the same time, Rocco had all of his brands going strong. We were still hanging out a lot and I could tell he was kinda proud of what I was doing with Shaolin. So even though I originally just wanted it to be clothing, I figured that if Rocco backed us, we could make some wood and denim, too. Long-story-short, we got a $3 million-dollar contract to do Shaolin Wood Co. through Rocco.
Unfortunately, what we didn’t know is that Rocco was about to sell off World Industries, along with all his other brands, for $120 million. He was aiming to become the first venture capitalist in skateboarding.
It was a completely different ballgame after that. Had I known the corporate game, I would’ve just gone skating every day and not even worried about the company. Because when Rocco sold it all, everyone got paid out. We would’ve got the payout, too. I just didn’t know the deal. So instead of chilling, I’m going into the office every day, designing our next shit when I should’ve stayed under the radar, not given a crap and waited to get paid.
That was my first experience working on the corporate level. What I learned is that just because you “can” do something, doesn’t always mean that you “should”. Feel me? Success is a mofo, man. I look at the word “success” now as “to suck to excess”, for real. I should own houses right now. But that’s what I had to go through and I definitely learned a lot about myself…. and other people.
You’ve maintained a steady presence over the years through EZ-RYDER and the Solitary Arts, but it seems like you’ve been experiencing a resurgence recently with a cameo on KOTR and several board reissues. Did you ever expect anything like this at age 53?
I’m so thankful to be experiencing all of this, man. I never would’ve dreamed that things would be going down this way. I don’t know if I suddenly seem more approachable now or what, but I’m grateful.
I honestly think that posting on Instagram is what really started putting me out there again. People got to see me out with my son or skating with the homies and they see that I’m still living skateboarding. I always have been, and probably forever will be, a hopeless skateboard romantic.
I really think that Alva team ad did a number on us, though. People always thought that we were these crazy tough dudes… we were actually just a bunch of skate geeks! (laughs)
So what’s next, Jef?
I’m just gonna stick with what’s always saved me and that’s staying connected with the youts. And I don't mean just keeping up with who’s next in skating, I kinda stopped reading the mags long ago. I’ve always been able to get the right information just by hanging with the younger generation of skaters.
I’m always out skating with friends, all who are at least 10 or 20 years younger than me. And now that my 6-year-old is skating, I’m actually in contact with even younger skaters. Not as their skate coach either, just sessioning with them and seeing how I can stoke them out. Sharing what’s rad and fun about skateboarding.
I count my blessings that I’m still able to roll around on this magic flying carpet. Not to mention the spark of attention that I’ve been receiving lately. The KOTR thing and the response to these JH reissues… it’s been a blast working on these boards with Dune, Chris Pastras, a bredren from the World days. I can’t thank him enough for all he’s done for me. And we have some exciting projects coming up in early 2018, too. There are two new shapes that I’ve been working on, the first one will be released through Krooked as a guest model and the second with Prime Wood LA.
Super rad. And congrats on that Krooked Guest Model!
Thanks, man. You know, for me, riding my own shape is as golden as it gets, just like back in the days of the Alva Posse. It’s true what they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I give thanks for all that skating has brought to my life. All of the travels, the opportunities, the small kine recognition, and all the great friends I’ve made. We are all family. Stay skate for life.
I give thanks for all that skating has brought to my life. All of the travels, the opportunities, the small kine recognition, and all the great friends I’ve made. We are all family. Stay skate for life.
Big thanks to Jef and Mark Oblow for taking the time.